John Alexander Symonds
“I'd say: ‘join the KGB and see the world’ - first class. I went to all over the world on these jobs and I had a marvellous time. I stayed in the best hotels, I visited all the best beaches, I've had access to beautiful women, unlimited food, champagne, caviar whatever you like and I had a wonderful time. That was my KGB experience. I don't regret a minute of it ...”
KGB Romeo Spy Part 1 - Foreword
This is the story of John Alexander Symonds life. The draft book was circulated to about 200 publishing houses and several showed an interest in offering it to the public.
Unfortunately the D-Notice Committee made objections to some of the contents on the grounds of National Security and so the book was never published.
The book is now published in its entirety on this website for the first time.
INDEX to my Biography
For nearly thirty years John Symonds has been telling anyone who cares to listen that between 1972 and 1980 he was a spy for the KGB. If you did not instantly dismiss him as a pub bore who on another day may come up to you and say he used to be Marilyn Monroe’s lover or the 5th, 6th or 7th Beatle, you would go on to learn that he was far from a conventional spy. He was not some grey pen-pusher in a government office, or a purloiner of bomb blueprints from a top secret weapons research establishment, or indeed a betrayer of any official secret whatever. On the contrary, John Symonds never betrayed a single secret, unless saying that Scotland Yard was corrupt from top to bottom was a secret. If he had gone to Moscow offering that information as a basis for being welcomed as a defector from Britain, then any Russian who had ever served in London would have rightly pointed out that even a fool with his eyes half open in Soho during the 1960s and early 1970s could have told you that. Rampant corruption in the Yard was staring any Londoner in the face during those years, from every porn shop, druggies’ pub and looted safety deposit box, as cops, robbers, pornographers and narcotics traffickers conspired to turn English justice upside-down.
So when John Symonds went on the run abroad in 1972, on pain of murder by some of the Yard’s most senior detectives if ever he returned, he was taking the only course open to him. As a former Royal Artillery officer, it was natural that he should gravitate to mercenary service in Africa, in which role he contracted several serious diseases - including hepatitis - and took up an offer of free medical care in Bulgaria. The men who arranged this trip were already aware of John’s burning passion to “avenge” those who had expected him to go to jail on corruption charges without breathing a word in court of the far worse systematic corruption that embraced almost all London’s CID. Indeed, he had handed his new-found friends a dossier listing over 150 corrupt detectives. This so impressed these undercover agents for the Soviet Bloc that they recommended him for recruitment by Moscow. And when he found himself in a resort on the Black Sea, awaiting what turned out to be superb medical care, sure enough, up came a senior KGB officer and took John under his wing.
The relationship was initially bumpy, as 'Nick' the KGB man battered the English police detective with question after question, to force him to admit that he was a double-agent, pretending to defect but working for British intelligence all along. His suspicions were still rampant when suddenly John Symonds pulled off an amazing espionage coup. A random pick-up turned out to be the wife of a West German political official who was then so pre-occupied with catching a spy in the office of chancellor Willi Brandt that he had sent his wife off on holiday to the soviet satellite state of Bulgaria all on her own. She fell in with the lusty English tourist, for three days and nights they made passionate love, and she spilled out all her husband’s secrets on the pillow.
The result? A report straight back to Moscow, desperate efforts to pull out the cornered spy from Chancellor Brandt’s innermost circle, and demands for more and more pillow-talk courtesy of this Englishman’s amazing sexual powers. On the basis of everything John found out, the spy at the court of King Willi could easily have been saved, but the stubbornness of the East German agency that was handling the spy meant that he was left in place as Brandt’s right-hand man for so long that the West Germans captured him anyway. The result was catastrophic for the Chancellor. He had to resign for placing undue trust in so unworthy a ‘secretary’, and the spy himself, Gunther Guillaume, was jailed for 13 years.
Moscow was furious with the East German leadership for the way it had handled this affair, but the KGB recognised its inordinate debt to the English Romeo, John Symonds, who had tipped it off in the first place. In due course he was lauded and banqueted in Moscow, given a commendation by KGB chief Yuri Andropov, and fully welcomed into the fold as a roving undercover operative for the Soviet Union.
But what kind of operative? On his brief but stunning record so far, it had to be as a Romeo Spy. And that is what he became. Indeed, he went on to perform the role so successfully in so many countries, he became the most successful Romeo Spy in the history of the KGB. For the next seven years, all over Europe, Africa, Asia, the Far East and Australasia, he seduced western embassy secretaries, ambassadors’ wives, and even the wives of CIA station chiefs, as well as the daughters of super-rich industrialists whom the Russians wished to suborn. In all it was a triumphant progress, but exhausting. Indeed, when once asked during a BBC interview, how it was that his handlers had once reported that he was losing his looks, John replied, ‘Of course I was losing my looks. Seducing over 100 women in the course of duty would take it out of anyone. It was exhausting work, and most men I know would have lost not just their looks. They would have ended up on a stretcher or in a wheelchair’.
When eventually John fell out with Moscow - disillusioned by a change of handlers and some dumb decision-making by the new KGB regime that came in with Andropov’s successor - he took the tough decision to flee his home base in Sofia, leave his devoted but unknowing girlfriend in Sofia, and return to England to face the corruption charges which he had fled eight years before. He was locked up in Brixton prison for a year before being convicted on only one of the charges drawn up against him back in 1972, yet even this one charge - of corruptly receiving £50 from a petty criminal in a car - he continues to deny to this day.
John Symonds believes that he had to be convicted, on no matter how trivial a charge, for reasons of state. And that was because his allegations of chronic and endemic corruption throughout Scotland Yard were just too much for the British Establishment to swallow. There was another reason: many of the officers whom he had first named as corrupt back in 1970 when he first drew up his dossier had risen to high rank by 1980 and continued to rise right up till the late 1990s when most finally retired. If what John said was to be believed, then the Yard was still riddled with corruption over twenty years after he had first been named as corrupt, in an expose in The Times newspaper in November 1969. It was John Symonds who, in tapes secretly recorded by Times reporters, had coined the phrase ‘The little Firm within the Firm’ to describe the corrupt nexus of Freemason police detectives that controlled crime in the capital at the time. The fact that neither the Home Office nor anyone else had done anything to follow up his claims and investigate the officers named in his original (1970) 'dossier', handed over to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner by his original lawyer (Victor Lissack) meant that it was another seven years before just twelve of them went to jail and that over 100 more continued to serve in ever higher ranks for decades to come.
Emerging from jail in 1981, John continued to press his corruption claims, which were continually ignored as the fantastical rantings of a bitter and crazy man. The same was said about his repeated claims to have worked for the KGB. No sooner had he been locked up to await trial on that single corruption charge in 1980, than through his lawyer, he approached the British Security Services, both MI5 and MI6, to tell them all he knew about the KGB network of spies, agents, safe houses and hotels, drops and local contacts in all the forty countries he had ever worked in. He was a walking encyclopedia of information on this vast network. Indeed he would have been far more useful than almost any Russian defector welcomed into this country by Britain’s spooks, because he had travelled far more widely and met far more Soviet agents of all nationalities in far more countries, than the average KGB apparatchik who serves in just a few Russian embassies for one-third of his career at most, and is stuck in a dingy office in the Lubyanka for the other two-thirds. Who do they know, in such a rigid structure, except for the man in the next office and the security guard on the door?
Totally ignored by Britain’s security services, with all his offers of help spurned, towards the end of 1983 John Symonds got the chance to lay out the broad sweep of his work for the KGB in a statement taken under immunity from prosecution by officers of the Hertfordshire Constabulary. The immunity, signed by the Attorney General, the Home Secretary and the Director of Public Prosecutions, allowed him to lay out the extraordinary but only too true saga of how a Scotland Yard detective had become the KGB’s most successful Romeo Spy. When the sheer breadth of the revelations began to fatigue the Hertfordshire officers who were taking it all down, John stated clearly that he would be willing to meet the Intelligence Services at any time to go into even further detail. The statement, totalling 263 pages, also went into the fine detail of many of the police corruption allegations which he had steadfastly maintained for well over a decade.
To his astonishment, no representative of Britain’s security services, not even of Scotland Yard’s Special Branch, ever took up his offer to reveal all, and so blow the cover of hundreds of KGB agents all over the world. The entire statement, given under immunity so that John could be as frank and open as possible, was shelved and ignored. Meantime all those agents whom he could have revealed remained active throughout four continents. Furious at such treachery of Britain’s interests by the very agencies which were meant to be protecting them, John took his story to the press. In 1985 the Daily Express splashed a front-page feature, and in 1987 the News on Sunday (soon to be defunct), also ran an article. With such attention-grabbing treatment, John should surely now have been summoned to spook headquarters or the Ministry of Defence for a full de-briefing. But no, on both occasions, his utterances were greeted with stony silence, except for a dismissive comment printed in the Express, to the effect that John’s story ‘all sounds a bit fantastical to us, so you can make what you want of that!’
Disgruntled and dejected at being treated for so many years like a mad wolf baying at the moon, John left Britain for Portugal where he spent his late middle age years in various odd job activities and looking after an elderly companion with whom he maintained a long platonic friendship. Occasionally he would return to London to appear on radical television programmes about police corruption, but none about his KGB years. Despite the efforts of some of the many journalists and producers, no publisher or television network wanted to touch that story. Some publishers obliquely indicated that they had been lent on by some rear-admiral whose job it is to heavy the book trade with warnings about not endangering western agents who may still be in the field. He also spreads an air of weary scepticism whenever Symonds’s name is mentioned, as if to say, ‘Oh dear, not that fantasist again’. The mere waft of his wand appears to be so dismissive that most publishers are likely to back off from any spy-book project which does not have the implicit or explicit backing of the security services themselves.
And so it was, that in September 1999 a book came out with the Imprimatur of MI6 and MI5 stamped all over it. It was entitled The Mitrokhin Archive, in honour of the KGB defector who had copied down extracts from hundreds of files which he had been entrusted to weed or destroy, so as to make space back at the KGB’s Lubyanka headquarters for other uses. The book purported to be a definitive expose of hundreds of western spies who had never previously been revealed. Written in a dry archival tone by the security services’ nominated historian, Christopher Andrew, this 1,000 page tome turned out to be a fairly routine history of the KGB, enlivened with a few purportedly juicy revelations about Britons who had betrayed their country, out of idealism, money or mental illness. Most of it was far from revelatory, mere regurgitations of hoary old stories about long dead burnt-out politicians such as Tom Driberg and Raymond Fletcher and several academics who had spent their entire teaching careers wearing the hammer and sickle on their sleeves.
But there were two sensational ‘new’ spies named. One was an 83 year old woman named Melita Norwood, who had spent some forty years passing obscure scientific papers to Russia filched while working as a secretary at the Tube Alloys Metals Institute. When the book was serialised in The Times she was duly besieged and interrogated by scores of reporters, who somewhat sheepishly had to report that she too had never concealed her political allegiances and still loyally distributed the communist Morning Star newspaper around the neighbouring streets. Also it emerged that she had lost her top security clearance back in 1950, so there was little that she could have passed to the Russians since then which would have been of the slightest use to them or anyone else.
The other new spy "exposed" in The Mitrokhin Archive was none other than John Symonds, ex-Scotland Yard detective turned KGB agent. His story was headlined in The Times, but a spoiler article in The Sunday Telegraph the previous day had the even more preposterous title, ‘Scotland Yard detective exposed as a KGB Spy’. What appalling arrogance for either the book or these newspapers to claim that they were exposing John Symonds as a spy, when he had been exposing himself as a KGB spy for almost twenty years. The folly stemmed from Andrew and Mitrokhin’s apparent ignorance of every attempt - public and private, to newspapers, the police and to the very agencies which had now sponsored The Mitrokhin Archive - which John Symonds had made to bring his story to public attention and to persuade the secret services to take action against the KGB’s international espionage apparatus. Even the makers of a subsequent BBC television programme, in which John appeared in a three-minute cameo, had come on to him very heavy as if to expose him for the first time, only to sink crestfallen when John pulled out his cuttings from the Express and the News on Sunday from 1985 and 1987 respectively, telling all and more than either that programme or The Mitrokhin Archive now purported to expose for the first time.
Indeed the entire five pages devoted to John Symonds in The Mitrokhin Archive is a botched and over-sold farrago. Not only did it fail to reveal anything about John which he had not either revealed in the press or had been trying to reveal in book form ever since the 1980s, it turned out on close scrutiny to be based on nothing more than his KGB personnel file. It gave the bare bones of what was in that file - his medical reports, physical and psychological, some of his passport and travel details, brief notes of reports written by John himself explaining why he had ‘made an excuse and left’ when confronted by women he was assigned to sleep with but who turned out to be either too sad or too plain for even this relentless Lothario to summon his powers to seduce.
In short, far from exposing John Symonds, The Mitrokhin Archive provided nothing more than a kind of appointments diary of his eight years with the KGB. It gave no account of his astonishing achievements, his espionage coups, his acquisition of dozens of passports for future use by a younger generation of Moscow agents, or indeed his phenomenal strike rate as the KGB’s Romeo seducer par excellence.
No matter. In this book John Symonds tells everything that is in the many Moscow 'Work-files' on him that the lowly clerk Mitrokhin was never allowed to see, and he tells far more, that not even Moscow knew about. It’s a staggering tale not just of espionage but of countless seductions above and beyond the call of duty - women who fell his way when he was working as a mercenary in West Africa, as a great white hunter and game warden in Tanzania, as a businessman in other African countries and a rich traveller and flaneur in Delhi and all over India, and further extraordinary nights of passion in Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo and across New Zealand and Australia.
In part it is also the story of John’s inner life, tortured and twisted by his time in the endlessly corrupt Metropolitan Police of his day. This also explains his continuing crusade to explain how the government’s failure to deal with that corruption root and branch in the 1960s and 1970s has resulted in the acrid pall of corruption that still hangs over Scotland Yard to this day.
So why was John Symonds dismissed as a fantasist for almost thirty years, whether he was revealing the truth about the Metropolitan Police or about his time with the KGB? On one level, his shunning by Britain’s security services may be explained as follows. What if John’s offer to assist MI5 and MI6 was seriously considered by those agencies in 1980 or at any point thereafter, who would they have turned to, in order to decide whether he was likely to be telling the truth? Why, Scotland Yard of course! And what would Scotland Yard’s highest-ranking officers have told them? Words to this effect: ‘Oh, you don’t want to believe a word that man says. He’s a fantasist. After all, he’s been saying we’re all corrupt in here ever since 1969, so he must be a fantasist!’ To which most spooks, sipping their tea or their gin and tonics, would have responded with something like, ‘Yes, I suppose that makes sense’ and proceeded to ignore the most valuable KGB defector that had ever put himself on offer.
Of course, the reason why all those top Yard officers would have rubbished Symonds all these years and dismissed him as a fantasist is precisely because he has been telling the truth. Some of the men who have rubbished him were among the 150 or so people he had named as long ago as 1970 in his original corruption dossier. Then they were mere detective constables or sergeants. In the 1980s and 1990s they were occupying the top jobs, and some were even getting knighthoods and peerages, apart from the fortunes they had amassed along the way.
One more thought about The Mitrokhin Archive. According to the ‘legend’ recounted in the book itself, Mitrokhin defected in 1992, with his three trunkloads of copied KGB personnel files secreted out by British MI6 agents around the same time. In 1996 Christopher Andrew was approached to write the book, and thereby enable Mitrokhin to gain some financial benefit from this, his little nest egg of stolen property. Three years later, the book itself appeared.
This chronology means that for seven years prior to publication the security services failed to make any approach to John Symonds, even though they knew full well that everything he had been saying ever since 1980 was not the blatherings of a fantasist but the truth. Their inactivity is inexcusable; a severe indictment of agencies whose third-rate performance has been tolerated for so long only because it is shielded and concealed from public scrutiny by the cloak of state security which they and their political defenders perpetually invoke whenever yet another intelligence scandal is exposed. This means we never have any opportunity to assess the performance of these agencies, to estimate if we get value for money for these sprawling civil service departments, or good use per square metre from their occupancy of the Tesco-supermarket style palace on the banks of the Thames.
But can their failure ever to interview or interrogate John Symonds for nearly thirty years really be put down to nothing more than inertia, incompetence, apathy or sloth? Or is there some other explanation? During his years working for the KGB, John Symonds worked his revenge on several of the detectives who, far more corrupt than he had ever been and far richer as a result, had made sure he was charged and then took part in the conspiracy to chase him into exile on pain of murder.
John told the KGB that these men were so corrupt and so greedy, that, having sold the integrity of their constable’s oath to pornographers, drug-traffickers, armed robbers, and even cop-killers, they would have no compunction in taking money from the KGB too. Instructed by their former chief and future President of the USSR, Yuri Andropov, to penetrate all cadres of capitalist society - including the police - John’s KGB handlers then proceeded to take up his suggestions and appear to have acquired the costly services of several Scotland Yard officers who rose effortlessly through its hierarchy. Even more alarming, other officers, equally venal, entered the Special Branch, that part of any British police force which liaises directly with the security services. While much despised by policemen in other branches, SB officers would make ideal targets for subversion, especially if they have already been named by John Symonds to the KGB as ready to take money from anybody. Worse still, also named by John Symonds in his original dossier and in his vast debriefing interviews with the KGB, were officers who, on retiring from the Metropolitan Police, took jobs in the Ministry of Defence. In this new career - and nowadays most policemen retire in their late forties so they have at least fifteen years of active work ahead of them - these men are not working as dog handlers on perimeter fences at Aldermaston or patrolling disused airfields in Norfolk. They have the immense responsibility of vetting all MOD employees, from those dog handlers all the way up to the top jobs in the Ministry itself, even in MI5 too.
So consider this. If the KGB did target all John Symonds’s recommended ‘bent cops’, then it is more than likely that some of these have facilitated the entry of other agents right into the very heart of Britain’s security services. Would this explain why no-one in the security services has ever bothered to even interview John Symonds, let alone investigate his claims? Has someone been infiltrated into the very department which should have followed up his claims been blocking any such move, as far back as 1980 when John ‘came across’ and indeed ever since? Why has the House of Commons Defence and Security Committee failed to take up his offer to assist them in their inquiries into the lapses in security thrown up - albeit unwittingly - by the publication of The Mitrokhin Archive? Could it be that, even now, people in the security services are dismissing him as a fantasist? If so, they should be investigated themselves, for they are continuing to betray this country in far more damaging ways that the contrite John Symonds has ever done.
In amongst all John’s fascinating revelations of police corruption, espionage, life as a soldier of fortune in West Africa and one torrid affair after another as a Romeo Spy, there is an astonishing love story. When he was ‘exposed’ in September 1999, an article appeared in The Sun describing him as a pathetic wreck of a man, playing dominoes with a load of geriatrics and living in an old folks’ home in Tottenham, north London. Far away in Sofia this newspaper was picked up by the woman whom he had left behind back in 1980, when he decided to flee his KGB minders and defect back to Britain. This woman, Nelly, wrote him a letter of such undying love and commitment, revealing that she had never given up hope that one day they would be re-united, that John was moved to renew their relationship. They had lived together in Sofia for five years, except for those long tours of duty which took John off on Romeo Spy duties to India, the Far East and Australasia.
It seems that Nelly has forgiven John all, not only all his infidelities on behalf of international communism but also his long years of silence between 1983 (when they had last been in touch) and 1999. John now resolved to pick up his life with the long-suffering Nelly. Whether he deserves the love of such a good woman is up to the reader to consider. But throughout John’s life, what he has deserved is never what he gets. In some respects he has ‘got off light’. In other respects he has suffered terrible wrongs. But who can deny him a little happiness in his twilight years?
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